Tribute Acts, Camden People’s Theatre

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The dad of one of my best friends is a long-time Labour Party member. He’s supported the party for all his adult life and since retiring he’s started getting more involved in local politics. When we were talking about the Labour leadership election, this friend of mine made it clear that her dad wasn’t backing Jeremy Corbyn. I was. So when the vote was announced, she immediately messaged me: “are you happy with the result?”

And I realised, with a little jolt of surprise, that I wasn’t quite sure how to reply.

Hope can be an oddly scary thing. I am, for the most part, a pretty optimistic person. Sure, the world can seem depressingly fucked up a depressingly large amount of the time, but acknowledging that has never stopped me from finding wonderful, beautiful, hopeful things to restore my faith in it. Seeing positives and believing in the possibility of something better, though, is a very different thing from investing hope in a solid person or party or promise. The moment you do that – the moment you shove all your optimism on the shoulders of a Jeremy Corbyn or a Natalie Bennett – you’re opening yourself up to the all-too-likely possibility of disappointment.

Tribute Acts is all about hope, heroes and the heartbreak of being let down. TheatreState’s new show has a fantastic central premise: Cheryl Gallacher and Tess Seddon use their shared disappointment in their once heroic dads as a parallel for the disheartening trajectory of the left. Sam Gallacher and Rodger Seddon, like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, are men in suits who seem to have all the answers. Cheryl and Tess want to believe in them. They used to believe in them. But betrayal by father figures, whether biological or political, is hard to bounce back from.

On stage, Cheryl and Tess’s dads join them as projected presences, speaking from screens over their shoulders. Each performer has interviewed the other’s father, asking questions about political beliefs and family memories. The two men on screen smile and hesitate, awkward and unsure of what is being asked of them. They tell dad jokes. They struggle to recover memories that are cherished by their daughters. They stick firm to their principles – both are lifelong socialists – but are tellingly unable to locate women in their visions of the future. Asked who they’d want as advisers if they became prime minister, both name a string of men.

We’re invited, then, into the same process of disappointment that has tainted Cheryl and Tess’s relationships with their dads. Gradually, behind the suits and the smiles, we see the repeated failures and the broken promises. Both men left their families, and so the spectres of divorce and adultery still haunt these father-daughter relationships. Even without the experience of a broken family, though, the countless small letdowns that accompany the realisation that your parents are just people, after all – flawed, fallible people – is wrenching. Cheryl and Tess’s performance style riffs on shared silliness and the playful dynamic they have as a duo, yet within that there are startlingly poignant moments.

But what resonates just as much – perhaps more, as I process my ambivalence about Corbyn’s leadership – is the hurt of broken political promises. They might fuck you up, your mum and dad, but so do the false hopes and empty promises of slick, suit-clad politicians. I’m the same generation as Cheryl and Tess. I also remember the heady rush of Tony Blair’s landslide election and the now painfully ironic hubris of the campaign’s blasts of D:ream’s ubiquitous “Things Can Only Get Better”. As a child, not understanding the politics or what the “new” bit of New Labour might mean (everything’s new when you’re seven), that song and the excitement that accompanied the 1997 election had the flavour of prophecy. Things could only get better, surely. (*cue bitter laugh*)

Intertwining those two strands of betrayal – personal and political – is a brilliant idea. First disappointments are always the harshest, and so the slow, painful process of losing faith in parents is a compelling analogy for losing faith in the left. In practice, though, the two halves of the show don’t ever fully knit together. As Cheryl and Tess speak into their microphones about the promises of men in suits with footage of Blair rolling behind them, it’s clear what TheatreState are doing, but this basic conceit isn’t really advanced at all over the course of the show. Instead, the two performers’ family relationships begin to dominate, taking us further and further into the personal while the political lingers like a half-forgotten shadow.

Tribute Acts opens with a reference to one of the iconically naff moments in 90s cinema: Bruce Willis saying his hero’s goodbye to daughter Liv Tyler in the fantastically bad disaster blockbuster Armageddon. As snippets from the movie flicker on screen, Cheryl and Tess enter in ridiculous, billowing space suits (see what I mean about the silliness?), heroes in their own way about to step into the unknown. This daft framing device – nodded to again when both performers don copies of Liv Tyler’s dress – is, oddly, one of the show’s most powerful tactics. It captures, with a distancing dose of hyperbole, what we so often want from parents and leaders alike: someone who will step in and save the day (and possibly, like Bruce Willis, the whole world). Away from Hollywood, though, it’s never quite that easy.

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